Rajasthan, also known as ‘The Land of the Kings’, is India’s biggest tourist drawcard after the Taj Mahal and it has a well-travelled path that takes in the state’s main attractions. It’s best known for its extraordinary forts and intricately decorated palaces but also boasts chaotic markets, a vast desert and of course, India’s infamous touts, scammers and pesky rickshaw drivers asking to take you on a special tour.
I usually prefer to steer clear of the tourist-oriented places and on one hand, Rajasthan certainly has too many souvenir stalls selling the same pashmina shawls and colorful camel key rings for my liking. However, I was still able to discover the true magic of the place while spending three weeks exploring the area and was pleasantly surprised by the state’s charm, incredible sights and colorful people.
My first stop on the Rajasthan tourist route was Udaipur, the City of Lakes, which was its most picture perfect during the golden hour in the early evening. The old palace and water front buildings reflected the orange glow of the setting sun and locals gathered down at the water’s edge to look out over the lake and eat some snacks from a street vendor.
The Blue City of Jodhpur has perhaps Rajasthan’s most impressive fort sitting on top of a hill and overlooking the state’s second largest urban sprawl. The city is known for its blue painted buildings, however, there is no agreed reason on exactly why some of the buildings are painted in that particular shade. Some say that the color keeps the buildings cool in the scorching summer, while others claim that it is associated with the Brahmins, India’s priestly caste. Either way, the sprinkling of blue is best seen from high above at the Mehrangarh Fort or, if you can find it, the sunset viewpoint opposite the fort.
I then traveled farther west in the state to the desert outpost of Jaisalmer, which boasts an impressive walled city that is often likened to a sand castle. However, the main reason many travelers venture out that way is for the Thar Desert and a night spent under the stars after a bumpy camel ride. Young men from the villages on the fringes of the desert often work as camel guides and I had two young boys lead the way for the night whilst singing and trying to push each other off the camel’s back. They were just ordinary boys having some fun and yet they had no trouble at all controlling the animals much bigger than themselves.
The next place I stopped was at the smaller town of Pushkar, which has become a backpacker haven, full of clothing shops and rooftop cafes. However, the town is also an important pilgrimage site for local people who come from all over the country to bathe in the holy lake in the centre of town. My first impression walking through the small town was that it was overly tourist-oriented. However, I discovered that the key to experiencing the true magic of the place was to rise early in the morning and head down to the ghats, or the edges of the lake, and observe the locals descending on the steps and bathing in the water. I sat for hours just taking in the scene; it was one of my favorite memories from my trip in India.
My final stop on the Rajasthan trail was the pink city of Jaipur, a bustling and chaotic metropolis with a plethora of markets to keep anyone busy. The colors from all the saris, sparkling jewelery and patterned fabric are mesmerizing and there are plenty of locals haggling for the best price too. The most impressive sight in Jaipur is the Palace of the Winds, or Hawa Mahal which is an extraordinary pink building that looks like it belongs on a fantasy movie set. The traffic in the city can be overwhelming, however, one of the rooftop cafes across from the palace offered a little respite and a stunning view of the city.
There were times when I was tired of the traffic, the crowds of tourists and the hassling rickshaw drivers, however, the magnificent hilltop forts, chaotic markets and colorful saris and buildings proved why Rajasthan draws so many people to its sights. For me, though, it was the morning I sat on the ghats in Pushkar, the night I spent in the Thar Desert and the golden glow of the sunset over Udaipur lake that truly made me fall for Rajasthan’s charm.